When Donald Trump was elected president of the United States I decided that I needed to read a book on the end of the Roman Republic. I opted for Robert Harris’s Dictator, the fourth of his four books about the life of Cicero, which tells the story of the end of the Republic through Cicero’s eyes (or to be strictly accurate through the account of his life written by his secretary). Harris is no Tolstoy, but he has a knack of bringing alive some of the great moments and men of history, imparting to us with ease the deep thoughts of much greater men.
Harris begins the book with a quote from Cicero from 46 BC: “To be ignorant of what occurred before you were born is to remain always a child. For what is the worth of human life, unless it is woven into the life of our ancestors by the records of history?”
How much, I wonder, does Trump know of the Roman Republic and its end? The US form of government is modelled on that of Rome with its separation of powers. Washington with its classical buildings, monuments, and statues is a modern Rome. The American military is the mightiest the world has known–as was the Roman army before it. And would it be fair to suggest that the US is philistine in its relation to Europe in the way that Rome was philistine in its relation to Greece?
Julius Caesar built his power through the army, his long campaign in Gaul, his testimony, and the devotion of his soldiers, which to some degree he bought by stuffing their mouths with silver. Trump has built his power through money and the media. Trump is casual with truth, and so was Caesar when it suited him. But Trump is no Caesar: he will not be remembered in 2000 years (when there will be no humans to remember anyway).
Yet Trump like Caesar loves power and himself. The central struggle is between the lust for power of these men and the institutions designed to limit their power. The Roman institutions gave way. Will those of the US?
Caesar was not alone in wanting to be dictator. Pompey, Crassus, Mark Anthony, and Octavian all aspired to the role. The institutions designed to restrict power were steadily corrupted, allowing these power-hungry men to see the opportunity to be dictator. Surely the US institutions have also been corrupted with gerrymandering on an industrial scale, politicisation of the Supreme Court, the rise of corporations more powerful than the state, the growth of debt, requiring people to prove their eligibility to vote, and the power of Big Money.
It both became easier in Rome for would-be dictators to justify taking power and to do so. Trump has already criticised US institutions, and isn’t he very likely to become deeply frustrated if institutions like the Senate and the Supreme Court block what he wants to achieve? Will he “in the name of the people” take power (ignoring the fact that he lost the popular vote by some two million.)
Cicero asks in the book: “Can a constitution devised centuries ago to replace a monarchy, and based upon a citizens’ militia, possibly hope to run an empire whose scope is beyond anything ever dreamed of by its framers? Or must the existence of standing armies and the influx of inconceivable wealth inevitably destroy our democratic system?” This could be about the US just as much as about Ancient Rome (indeed, I’m sure that Harris intended it to be read that way).
Cicero knew Caesar, as everybody at that high level knew everybody, and he lives in fear of him. At one point in the book Cicero asks Caesar for a favour, and this is how the conversation went. We might easily substitute Trump for Caesar and Megan Kelly for Cicero.
Caesar: ‘Nothing worries me when it comes to you. Do you have any other favours to ask?’
Cicero: ‘Well, I would like to be relieved of these lictors.’
Caesar: ‘It’s done.’
Cicero: ‘Doesn’t it require a vote of the Senate?’
Caesar: ‘I am the vote of the Senate.’
Cicero: ‘Ah! So I take it you have no intention of restoring the republic …?’
Caesar: ‘One cannot rebuild using rotten timber.’
In the book Cicero reminds us why we must preserve our institutions and resist the temptation (think Turkey) to put them on one side to bring “peace.” “We must be careful not to do our enemies’ work for them. To argue that to preserve our freedoms we must suspend our freedoms, that to safeguard elections we must cancel elections, that to defend ourselves from dictatorship we must appoint a dictator – what logic is this? We have elections scheduled. We have candidates on the ballot. The canvass is completed. The best way for us to show confidence in our institutions is to allow them to function normally and to elect our magistrates as our ancestors taught us in the olden time.”
The Roman Republic collapsed after years of war fought across the Ancient World, and Caesar was, of course, assassinated by those trying to preserve the Republic. But once the basic institutions are undermined there are plenty of potential dictators to take over. Cicero was friendly with and an admirer of Octavian (eventually the Emperor Augustus) but came to see that he had the same ambitions as Caesar, his great-uncle.
“I do not say that the younger Caesar is like the elder. But I do say that if we make him consul, and in effect give him control of all our forces, then we will betray the very principle for which we fight: the principle that drew me back to Rome when I was on the point of sailing to Greece – that the Roman Republic, with its division of powers, its annual free elections for every magistracy, its law courts and its juries, its balance between Senate and people, its liberty of speech and thought, is mankind’s noblest creation, and I would sooner lie choking in my own blood upon the ground than betray the principle on which all this stands – that is, first and last and always, the rule of law.”
Octavian had Cicero pursued and beheaded. His head was brought back to Rome and placed on a spike in the Forum. So ended the world’s greatest orator.
Eventually you wake up one day and realise that you no longer live in a democracy: “For the first time we tasted life under a dictatorship: there were no freedoms anymore; no magistrates, no courts; one existed at the whim of the ruler.”
But if and when Trump or his son-in-law take over Americans can perhaps be consoled by the thought that the future won’t all be bleak. Although Augustus was followed by despotic, crazy, cruel, tyrannical emperors (Nero, Caligula) he was also followed by enlightened ones (Hadrian, Marcus Aurelius). Read my thoughts on Hadrian: https://richardswsmith.wordpress.com/2016/06/07/memoirs-of-hadrian-a-great-book-even-greater-on-the-second-read/
Cicero ends with a comforting thought on the inevitable rise and fall of times, countries, and empires: “However, there is always this to be said for politics: it is never static. If the good times do not last, neither do the bad. Like Nature, it follows a perpetual cycle of growth and decay, and no statesman, however cunning, is immune to this process.”
If America falls, as it will eventually, then it may rise again–but not perhaps for millennia.
Here are the rest of the quotes I took from the book:
How easy it is for those who play no part in public affairs to sneer at the compromises required of those who do.
It is human nature that what starts as gratitude quickly becomes dependency and ends as entitlement.
A man who is bitter hurts no one but himself.
I make no claim to be a philosopher, but this much I have observed: that whenever a thing seems at its zenith, you may be sure its destruction has already started.
Politics is the most noble of all callings (‘ there is really no other occupation in which human virtue approaches more closely the august function of the gods’); that there is ‘no nobler motive for entering public life than the resolution not to be ruled by wicked men’; that no individual, or combination of individuals, should be allowed to become too powerful; that politics is a profession, not a pastime for dilettantes (nothing is worse than rule by ‘clever poets’); that a statesman should devote his life to studying ‘the science of politics, in order to acquire in advance all the knowledge that it may be necessary for him to use at some future time’; that authority in a state must always be divided; and that of the three known forms of government – monarchy, aristocracy and people – the best is a mixture of all three, for each one taken on its own can lead to disaster: kings can be capricious, aristocrats self-interested, and ‘an unbridled multitude enjoying unwonted power more terrifying than a conflagration or a raging sea’.
I am Cassandra – doomed to see the future yet destined never to be believed.’
If one of the miseries of being human is that happiness can be snatched away at any moment, one of the joys is that it may be restored equally unexpectedly.
But because what went on there was now entirely beyond his control, he no longer had to fret about it and was free to concentrate on his books – in that sense paradoxically dictatorship had liberated him.
Cicero’s favourite was the Hermathena, a Janus-like bust of Hermes and Athena staring in opposite directions,
‘Caesar never does anything out of sentiment. He has given him the job in part no doubt because he is talented, but mostly because he is Cato’s nephew and this is a good way for Caesar to divide his enemies.’
A description of Cato. “Sinewy in thought and person; indifferent to what men said of him; scornful of glory, titles and decorations, and even more of those who sought them; defender of laws and freedoms; vigilant in the public interest; contemptuous of tyrants, their vulgarities and presumptions; stubborn, infuriating, harsh, dogmatic; a dreamer, a fanatic, a mystic, a soldier; willing at the last to tear the very organs from his stomach rather than submit to a conqueror – only the Roman Republic could have bred such a man as Cato, and only in the Roman Republic did such a man as Cato desire to live.”
Cicero praising Caesar: ‘You seem to have vanquished Victory herself, now that you have surrendered to the vanquished all that Victory had gained. Truly you are invincible!’
Cicero conceived The Tusculam Disputations as five books:
On the fear of death
On the endurance of pain
On the alleviation of distress
On the remaining disorders of the soul
On the sufficiency of virtue for a happy life
(The dead are not wretched, the living are wretched); that we should think about death constantly and so acclimatise ourselves to its inevitable arrival (the whole life of a philosopher, as Socrates said, is a preparation for death); and that if we are determined enough, we can teach ourselves to scorn death and pain, just as professional fighters do: What even average gladiator has ever uttered a groan or changed expression? Which has ever disgraced himself after a fall by drawing in his neck when ordered to suffer the fatal stroke? Such is the force of training, practice and habit. Shall a gladiator be capable of this while a man who is born to fame proves so weak in his soul that he cannot strengthen it by systematic preparation?
In the fifth book, Cicero offered his practical prescriptions. A human being can only train for death by leading a life that is morally good; that is – to desire nothing too much; to be content with what one has; to be entirely self-sufficient within oneself, so that whatever one loses, one will still be able to carry on regardless; to do none harm; to realise that it is better to suffer an injury than to inflict one; to accept that life is a loan given by Nature without a due date and that repayment may be demanded at any time; that the most tragic character in the world is a tyrant who has broken all these precepts.
‘What a lot of trouble one avoids if one refuses to have anything to do with the common herd! To have no job, to devote one’s time to literature, is the most wonderful thing in the world.’
He even had himself declared a god – ‘the Divine Julius’ – with his own priesthood, temple and images, and like a god began to interfere in all aspects of daily life:
(O wretched indeed is that old man who has not learned in the course of his long life that death should be held of no account).
The Spartan statesman Lycurgus, seven hundred years ago, is said to have observed:
When falls on man the anger of the gods,
First from his mind they banish understanding.
As Cicero had long tried to convince him, a speech is a performance, not a philosophical discourse: it must appeal to the emotions more than to the intellect.
Friendship (With the single exception of wisdom, I am inclined to regard it as the greatest of all the gifts the gods have bestowed upon mankind),
Cicero’s treatise on old age: just as I approve of the young man in whom there is a touch of age, so I approve of the old man in whom there is some flavour of youth
The truth is, all our lives hang by a thread. There is no safety anywhere, and no one can predict what will happen.
There is a wonderful line in one of Cicero’s letters to Atticus in which he describes moving into a property and says: “I have put out my books and now my house has a soul.”
If a man ascended into heaven and gazed upon the whole workings of the universe and the beauty of the stars, the marvellous sight would give him no joy if he had to keep it to himself. And yet, if only there had been someone to describe the spectacle to, it would have filled him with delight. Nature abhors solitude.
A good death – which as you know is the supreme objective of the good life.
Other nations can endure slavery, but the most prized possession of the Roman people is liberty.’
‘Brief is the life given us by nature; but the memory of a life nobly sacrificed is everlasting.’